Friday, March 12, 2010

The Lacuna

I find it a peculiar challenge to sort out my reactions to The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which I finished reading yesterday. Peculiar because usually I come out of a reading experience with a fairly clearcut opinion. Not always, but most of the time. Hence the need this time to sort. This is yet another occasion, though, when my lack of training or education in literary matters makes me feel a bit challenged. So please bear with me as I harumph about and try to figure out why I felt the way I did.

Which is lukewarm. I didn't dislike this novel, although I do have some specific criticisms, which I'll get to presently. But I think that if this novel had been something more than it managed to be, the things I didn't like about it would have receded into the background. The book could have risen above its weaknesses and won me over. I understood for certain that it had not--not won me over, not taken me over the way I want a book to do--when I found myself, not 10 minutes after finishing The Lacuna, opening another novel and reading the blurbs and thinking ooh this looks good. Yeah, I know, famous last words, but that's not the point. The point is why was I able to immediately break the spell of the Kingsolver book and move on to the next? The reason, alas, is that there was no spell to break.

I've read most of Barbara Kingsolver's novels. I think the only one I haven't read is her last before this one, something about straight people having sex, icky icky icky, I just didn't feel like taking that trip. But in general I think she's a fine writer. She is certainly that rare creature in the world of mainstream U.S. arts and letters, an artist who tackles explicitly political topics. She deserves credit for that. Truth be told, though, I've never loved a book of hers. I've never felt transformed, transported. And so it is once again, this time with The Lacuna.

I don't think it's a question of style or structure. She has a lovely way with a sentence and the story flows smoothly for the most part. The problem, I think, is a lack of passion. A remove where what's wanted is a plunging in.

The story is told mostly in the first person, primarily via the journals and letters of the narrator and main character, Harrison Shepherd, born in 1915 in Virginia to a U.S. father and Mexican mother. Brought by his mother to Mexico as a child, he lives there except for a brief spell of boarding school in D.C., until he's a young man, when, in his 20s, he returns to the U.S. Here's the thing: this character is a cipher. There's very little life to him. He is all about observing and recording.

For a big chunk of the book--its middle section, its core, its heart--the story comes to life. Because what he's observing and recording, what he is in effect reporting to us, is the story of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their households, their lives, work, art, politics. And for the best chunk of that, the heart of the heart of the book, our observer/recorder/reporter is there in the house in Mexico City during the time Leon Trotsky lives there in exile. In fact, Harrison becomes Trotsky's secretary. In fact, he's there when Trotsky is assassinated.

All of this is fascinating. And lovingly told. But it did not draw me in to the ostensible protagonist's orbit. He remains a device for the telling of the real story, which is about Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky. This might not matter if that were all there were to the novel. But there is a considerable number of pages to get through before we enter this middle section, and again a fair piece of story, an important piece of story in fact, afterward in the last third of the book, especially the final pages when Harrison becomes a target of the McCarthyite witch hunt--and so it does matter that this character never comes fully alive, remains more or less a cipher, a device through which Kingsolver tells a larger story. That larger story is vitally important. I found it frustrating that I never cared very much about the character who's supposed to be living it, because he never came much to life.

I think this is because the character, as drawn, has no convictions of his own. He lives with some of the most important, vital persons of 20th century politics and arts; he gets caught up in the swirl of the signal issue of the 20th century, the class struggle as played out in the anti-communist frenzy of the McCarthy years--good heavens, what drama, what wonderfully meaty stuff Kingsolver holds in her hands here--and yet, steadfast, almost stubborn, throughout the book's 500-some pages he continues to merely observe, record, report. There's some awkward authorial effort to sort of explain this toward the end, to sort of tease out the mysteries of his personality, his reticence and so on, but it's too little too late, and in any case unconvincing, in my view. He's gay, that is made clear, but it is also kept nearly entirely off the page, with only the briefest, shyest, most glancing references; this annoyed and very nearly offended me, I mean, come on, author of a previous novel that focused on heterosex, don't give me some nonsense about the times, I know something about the times because of the research I did for my own novel, I just don't buy the near total skittishness, it feels like the author's rather than the character's, it feels inauthentic and unimaginative.

But the main fault I find with the main character's failure to engage, even more than this bizarre coyness regarding his gayness, is his remove from the grand political passions that are after all the real focus of the book. Kingsolver, via Harrison in his journals and so on, paints affectionate portraits of Trotsky and Kahlo in particular. It's a bit much to believe that he works closely with these two larger-than-life but real-life human beings whose lives were all about their beliefs political and artistic, that he cares for them deeply, that he takes dictation from and types articles and letters for Trotsky, for heaven's sake--and through it all, somehow, fails to be swept up himself in all this whirling vortex of ideas, of thought, belief, conviction.

What's going on here? Actually, I think it's more complex than Kingsolver's failure to imbue her protagonist with passion or conviction of his own. In a way, I think, she had no choice but to draw him this way, because otherwise her portrayal of Trotsky wouldn't work. Her portrayal of Trotsky as a human being is delightful; he comes to life on the page in much the way I've always imagined him. Her portrayal of Trotsky the revolutionary, however, is deeply erroneous. The Trotsky of Kingsolver's imagination is more or less a social democrat. He is more or less in the camp of opposition to the Soviet Union as it existed in the Stalin years. This is Trotsky denatured, declawed, Trotsky Lite for left-liberal consumption. In fact Leon Trotsky was a roaring lion, leader of the Red Army, theorist of the permanent revolution, scourge of petty-bourgeois liberalism--and, most important, defender and supporter of the Soviet Union to the day he died. Trotsky never wrote off the USSR, never turned against it, never joined in the crude caricaturing of it as having gone down in some kind of "Stalinist counter-revolution." Yes, he struggled to the day he died to right (left) the course of events. But no--no--no--he never took the side of imperialism against the revolution.

In effect Kingsolver gives the impression that he did. She sucks the revolution right out of him. Imagine that! He comes off instead as a crinkly-eyed kindly old man of the sort who might be comfortable with the brand of liberal activism. Oy vey. From her de-Trotskying of Trotsky, then, it's a short, straight! and necessary line to a passionless, opinionless, nearly disembodied protagonist.

Well, it looks like I have in fact settled on an opinion as I talked myself through this. There is a hole in this novel. A frustrating blank where I'd wish to have found a raging roaring blaze.

This then, for me, is the lacuna.